What the Ground Can’t Hold, Shady Cosgrove

9781742612737The thing that grabbed me about this book was the title: it bothered me. Still does. And I want to rewrite it – “What the Ground Cannot Hold”.

But despite the fact that the title nagged at the edges of my reading view, I persisted and I am delighted that I did.

There are several different elements which are sure to intrigue readers in this book. Firstly, the plot. An avalanche on a mountain in the remote Andes – what’s not to love for those of us who enjoy a thriller? But this is only the background. The real intrigue lies in the complexity of each of the characters who find themselves stranded together in an isolated cabin, cut off from the rest of the world, alone in the white world of the mountain.

I thought Cosgrove was quite clever at how she wove together the narratives of each of these characters. This afforded the novel both a level of interest and a sound structure. In addition, it created a space for the reader to meander through the story filling in the gaps created by a single perspective as other voices were introduced. But more than this, it is what Cosgrove omits that is most intriguing about this book. In so many ways she leaves readers in the dark, providing only the scantest details about contextual events and the personal lives of each of her characters. I found these omissions both fascinating and irritating. What will Emma do about the lies her parents told her? How will Pedro reconcile himself to his past? Will the German family forgive themselves and each other? The book resolves none of these questions. They merely hang in the air, left for readers to ponder. Similarly, the plot is left hanging – “Surely I could hold on.” It is a brave ending, a climactic and tension filled crescendo which is left in mid air. I admire Cosgrove for leaving us like this, in the space that opens up with the not-knowing. I didn’t like it, but it leaves me with great respect for her as an author.

This was certainly an interesting read and I will look out for more of Cosgrove’s books – perhaps there will be a sequel and there I will find the resolution that I so crave as a reader?

The Children Act, Ian McEwan

the-children-act-cover-imageIf there’s one thing that I can be certain of in this life, it is that if I am at a loss for something to read, Ian McEwan will certainly deliver greatness. The Children Act didn’t disappoint.

There was a special quality to this book that I think rested in the intimate yet detached narrative voice afforded by the perspective of Fiona Maye – a leading HIgh Court judge presiding over cases in the family court. Maye is a perfect protagonist; she loves her job, is committed to the morality and ethics of the outcomes she delivers, she is in awe of the law and yet she is distant from the people she rules against as her position necessitates. This affords her the ability, as a narrator, to present a simultaneously distant (her husband might say cold), yet intimate view of the cases that come across her desk. McEwan replicates this in his text: “London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather.” The truncated sentences, sparse but layered with implied detail, provide the perfect space for Maye as narrator. The Washington Post describes The Children Act as “finely choreographed”, too long to be a novella but with “that focused intensity and single arc”.

With elegance and skill, in two pages, McEwan paints Maye as first an accomplished, professional, emotionally removed judge whose life is littered with the rewards of that position, and then, almost in the same breath, he exposes her humanity – “He had made a shocking declaration and placed an impossible burden on her. For the first time in years, she had actually shouted, and some faint echo still resounded in her ears. ‘You idiot! You fucking idiot!’… ‘How dare you!'” – she is talking to her husband, Jack, who has just declared that he needs to have an affair because he feels unsatisfied in their marriage. The stark juxtaposition between the complex issues that Maye is considering in advance of her court appearance in the morning – “Tomorrow, coming before her again would be a despairing Englishwoman …mother of a five-year-old girl, convinced, despite assurances to the court to the contrary, that her daughter was about to be removed from the jurisdiction by the father, a Moroccan businessman and strict Muslim, to a new life in Rababt, where he intended to settle” – and her emotional response to her husband  which unfolds half in her subconscious and half out loud.

I loved the tenuous balance that McEwan weaves between Maye as judge and Maye as wife. For me, it was this that afforded the book its brilliance, its ebb and flow, indeed, its edge. It is this that enables McEwan to explore a complex legal issue without drowning in the details and jargon, allowing Maye’s voice to be believable and honest, for her to be trustworthy narrator.

Inspired by true events, The Children Act swept me along in a symphony of reading bliss. It is exactly the type of reading experience that I like to highly recommend!

The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego

9780987381149I applaud Julie Szego for grabbing this story and shaking it until its bones rattled. I applaud her for dealing with the harsh, grating issues that lie beneath the facade of the shocking plot surrounding the ‘tainted trial of Farah Jama’ – a black Ethiopian man convicted on the flimsiest of evidence for a crime that he did not commit against a white woman … all in a country as democratic and beautiful as Australia.

Szego explores the crime, the crime scene and the various characters involved, from a range of different and compelling angles. She clearly and competently conveys the complexity of this case – the victim, the accused and his traditional, Ethiopian family, and the honour and pride of the Ethiopian community. In layers, Szego unwraps all of these elements, drawing readers into the heart of questions about morality, truth, justice and race relations in Australia.

I loved how this story unfolded. It is part investigative journalism and part social commentary with a touch of thrilling mystery. The way that Szego crosses the boundaries of these genres makes this a fascinating book to read. This book teaches us about humanity, about prejudice, about assumptions and presumptions and about the fallibity of our legal system. Most importantly, it forces us to appreciate the value of asking questions and investigating until we are certain that we have come to understand the truth.

Every Man Dies Alone, Hans Fallada

I’ll start at the end: What I loved first about this book was the good stuff at the end – historical documents like letters and trial papers, little grits of non fiction that formed the backdrop of this story, and the inspiring notion that Hans Fallada was a pseudonym for a man called Rudolph Ditzen who wrote this book in 24 days in the last year of his life in Germany 1947.

Ditzen’s personal story is a novel in itself, he came to the attention of the Nazis in 1933 and was ultimately jailed for his ‘anti-Nazi denunciations’. Ditzen suffered a series of nervous breakdowns, became addicted to alcohol and morphine and spent time not only in jail but also in a mental institution.

It is against this personal context that Fallada wrote ‘Every Man Dies Alone’, a novel based on the true story of a German couple who conducted a 3 year subtle resistance campaign against the Nazis by dropping postcards renouncing the Nazis and their activities around the city of Berlin.

The novel unfolds slowly, each chapter providing a segment of the complex story of Berlin under the Nazis and the lives of those people trying to live within the confines of this warped reality. Fallada presents us with an uninvolved couple who lose a son at the Front, a Jewish woman whose husband has disappeared, a retired judge and a family of fervent Nazi supporters whose sons are involved in the Hitler Youth. Into the mix he throws a few desperate and destitute characters with a penchant for women, gambling and alcohol who are always looking for a quick way to make a buck without getting killed. The mix of these diverse individuals is profound, disturbing and incredibly interesting. Reading this novel is like looking through the peep hole into each of their lives, catching snippets and then losing them again as the narrative is passed between them.

I love the rhythm of this telling, the subtle flow and the ultimate insight into the inanities of life in Nazi Germany during this period, a time when everyone was a spy and everything that you said could be twisted and used against you.

Primo Levi says that this is “the greatest book every written about German resistance to the Nazis” which is true, but somewhat ironic given that the English publication of this book only appeared in 2009, some 60 years after it was first published in German.

Oversights like this aside, there is no doubt that Fallada’s book is one of the most important books that has been published since the Second World War and there is no coincidence to my review appearing today, on the 70th anniversary of the end of that dreadful, tragic and devastating period in human history.

Fallada’s message is clear: Have the courage to care and to act. Do not stand by idle while others perpetrate evil. Do not stray from knowing what is right, and doing what is right.

I can’t help but be reminded of the poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

The Story of Beautiful Girl, Rachel Simon

downloadThe Story of Beautiful Girl is indeed a beautiful story. It is written beautifully, crafted beautifully and its message is simply beautiful. I struggled so to let this book go. I read it slowly so that I could linger over its magic and then as I approached the end I stopped, held it at bay so that I could savour it further. I rarely have the patience to do this and I watched this book from a distance for a long time before deciding that it was finally time to let go. I think I read 2 or 3 other books in between, drawing out the process even further.

I don’t want to spoil a moment of this book for anyone, so I’m simply going to say that this is a book about love and loss, about faith and empathy and about the power of one person to change the world. It is about truth and honesty and perserverance. It is about the very essence of what draws us together as a community, leading us all to find a place and a space to belong.

I defy you not to fall in love with this beautiful book about a Beautiful Girl.

Buried Angels, Camilla Lackberg

downloadI’m undecided about this book. I read it and I was certainly engaged by the plot and the characters and their tortured past. It was hard not to be captivated by these elements. I was especially intrigued by the author’s Swedish context and I think it was this more than anything which kept me intrigued.

But I was unsettled by some of what seemed to be the obvious twists – two women who both lost children, a family who disappeared, some unpleasant men. I couldn’t help but feel that it was all too conspicuously apparent. And mostly I couldn’t bring myself to care enough about the fate of these characters. Sometimes it happens – a book just unfolds and I land up feeling detached, possibly through no fault of the author, just something in the air. And so it was with Buried Angels. I read it. Right to the end. I didn’t guess the twist and I was engaged enough to persist. But that was all.

Two Brothers, Ben Elton

two broIt’s been too long since I last read an epic tale like this one. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read such a captivating drama since Gregory’s Wideacre trilogy had me  captive.

Elton’s book gripped me from the first page and had me hanging by a thread until the very end. There was only one moment where he lost me, but I’ll forgive him that because the book itself was just too otherwise perfect.

Elton weaves two narratives. The first in the past, Berlin 1920 to be precise. The story of a Jewish woman who gives birth to twins. The story of this woman and her family forms the basis of the narrative and unfolds parallel to the birth of Hitler’s Nazi party. Elton has managed to convey the flurry of insanity which engulfed Germany in this post war period. The uncertainty, the beauty, the mania. He does it while simultaneaously moulding Frieda Stengel and her beloved husband, Wolfgang, into characters that we as readers have no choice but to love.

Elton’s second narrative occurs in 1956. And about this I will say nothing for it will simply spoil the magic of the two tales.

For me, part of the aura of this book was the historical context but never did that over power the magic of Elton’s characters. The generous Frieda, her two sons, her trumpet playing husband and of course the beautiful Dagmar and loving Silke.

This book will surely resonate with me for a long time and if you are a fan of historical fiction I can’t recommend it enough. You will not be disappointed.

In The Blood, Lisa Unger

in-the-blood-9781476708232_lgOh gosh this woman unhinges me. Psychological thriller doesn’t even come close to describing this page turning, heart throbbing, gripping and twisting read. Clearly I love Lisa Unger. I love that her crazy plots follow me through my dreams. I love the way she creates this viscious characters filled with verve and pizazz and I love the way she knits it all together. I’m an Unger fan through and though!

Sonya Hartnett, The Ghost’s Child

downloadThe Midnight Zoo was such a treat that when I stumbled upon another of Sonya Hartnett’s books while searching through the library for books for the littler people in my house, I couldn’t possibly resist the site of The Ghost’s Child – and needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed!

The Ghost’s Child starts with some basic scene setting – Matilda, an elderly woman, comes home to find a stranger sitting in her living room. The stranger is a young boy and Matilda – Maddie – finds it comforting to have him sitting there while she offers to make tea and put out biscuits. The story unfolds as Maddie tells the boy about her a story. The story of her life, a life filled with beauty and wonder, love and deep loss.

Maddie’s story is magical and wonderous and exposes readers to such an amazing array of emotions that it is difficult to capture in a short review.

I won’t spoil this gem. I will only tell you that what sold me on this book was the way that it could be read on so many different levels. There is something here for everyone.

The Submission, Amy Waldman

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I found this in my draft folder – who knew there was a draft folder? And I can’t for the life of me recall why I left it there … unfinished. So here it is, much overdue: The Submission. Amy Waldman. What can I say? Where can I begin?  What can I say? This is just one of those books that consumes you. I can’t think of a single adjective to describe it. It is too much, too big to be contained by words alone.

I love the website for this novel. It so captures the book: a slab of images, The Architect, The Widow, The Chairman, The Journalist, each image spread across a chess board interspersed with titles – I think it appeals because the Sydney Opera House is there buried in these images and on the surface this book has nothing to do with Sydney’s icon!

I’ve read a few post 9/11 works of fiction. Delillo’s Falling Man has possibly the greatest opening chapter I have ever encountered, but book fizzled from there for me. Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a poignant exploration of the impact of 9/11 on the innocent families, told through the lens of an autistic child. It brilliantly captures the immediate tone of New York City in the aftermath of this unimaginable disaster and the depth of this tragedy is tenderly contrasted by the quirky narrative voice which somehow makes telling this tale more bearable.

What I have not read, is a book which clearly elucidates the deep rift which 9/11 created, specifically impacting the lives of those non-fanatical Muslims who are caught up in the fray of the chaos which followed with the finger-pointing and angst that one can only expect to come in the wake of this enormous tragedy. Waldman’s book does exactly this.

There is so much greatness in this book that it is difficult to quantify. What I think made it so engaging was the dialogue. Nowhere is this more evident than in the book’s opening:

“The names,” Claire said. “What about the names?”

“They’re a record, not a gesture,” the sculptor replied.

It is so simple. The names … what about the names? They are discussing a competition for a memorial, trying to come to grips with what could actually appropriately commemorate an event like 9/11, provide a suitable resting place for those whose bodies were never find while also act as a salve for a city which has been changed forever. They are trying to set parameters. Do we require the names? The person asking is Claire. For her, it matters – “They will for me” she says tightly.

5000 entries have been reviewed and the committee is down to the final two, trying to make a decision. Ultimately it is a decision which is fraught with complexity for a whole host of reasons, none of which I could adequately cover in this space.

In short, this book is brilliant. Truly and honestly, one of those books that brings tears to your eyes while at the same time forces you to reconsider all of your assumptions, to reassess your values and the very way that you move in the world. Reviewing it now, more than a year after I read it, I think it requires rereading. It’s just that kind of book.